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See Europe from your sofa: top notch factual TV
on 20 February 2014
If you have enjoyed Michael Portillo’s earlier adventures on the railways of the UK and Europe, then this second season of European journeys should be just as pleasing.
The film-makers have maintained the previous high standard of presentation, informal education and relaxed atmosphere to provide a superb showcase for scenic photography as well as an insight into European social and industrial history before the First World War. MP’s polished presentation is informative and engaging, and generously provides space for local experts and other travellers to contribute to the mix. It’s also smashing to see him relax somewhat in the familiarity of his home-from-home in Spain.
You don’t need to have seen any of the other series to enjoy this set, nor does it matter where you start your journey. Just sit back and enjoy the sights of 1913 France, Spain, Italy, Scandinavia and Germany contrasted with the current situation in some unusual regions of our European neighbours. Some of the destinations are obvious (Venice or Prague) but many others are off the beaten track – places you may never visit yourself but can experience secondhand.
Each programme is an hour long and follows one particular railway journey or theme. The German journeys typically include more historic railways while the episodes through France and Spain are mainly undertaken on modern trains. Instead these programmes follow an historic theme, like Edward VII’s holidays of the early 1900s at fashionable resorts along the Bay of Biscay. The emphasis is more on social than industrial history (bathing in Edwardian costume, tasting the wine, seafood and delicacies of the region, the background to Basque nationalism), although the inclusion of a funicular railway, Bilbao’s remarkable transporter bridge and a traditional ‘scenic railway’ – a roller-coaster by any other name made all the more invigorating by its age and potential decrepitude!
Throughout, MP refers to his 1913 Bradshaw’s railway guide, seeking out stunning buildings which still survive today, using archive footage and photos where they exist. Other forms of transportation get a look-in, too, including a vintage Volvo in Sweden (of course) and a titchy Fiat in Italy. The programmes also include many unusual historical footnotes, like a reassessment of the true character of Casanova. No one subject sticks around for long enough to become boring – each segment runs to 6 or 8 minutes or so – and instead we see a snapshot of historical, industrial and architectural highlights along each route.
As with earlier series, although it was broadcast in high definition, there doesn’t seem to be a Blu-ray release so we lose the impact of the stunning scenery which is a shame (especially on the mountain sections).
Overall, a thoroughly enjoyable series. It has particular relevance in 2014, the centenary of the outbreak of WW1, as MP discusses much of the social situation in 2013. Without labouring the point, this series demonstrates just how much our societies all lost in that conflict.
After watching, you might end up with a better understanding of how the EU functions, for example, or how the royal families interacted before the Great War. But while magpies like me can swoop upon bright shiny facts and store them, many other viewer will just appreciate the views!
Oh, and if this series inspires you to try Continental rail travel for yourself -- go do it. It's a fab way to travel.